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Bioarchaeology and Paleopathology

STRI houses over 600 human remains in the archaeology lab that were excavated by STRI archaeologists and associates since the mid-twentieth century. In a project led by STRI post-doctoral fellow Nicole Smith-Guzmán since 2016, these remains are being analyzed systematically and their storage retrofitted for improved long-term preservation and access for future researchers. Our focused study of biocultural markers, demography, and disease on these human skeletons allows an enhanced view of cultural activities and overall well-being of the pre-contact populations that inhabited the region, often challenging previous interpretations of ancient lifeways based on grave goods alone.

Was Pre-Columbian Lived Experience Different from Spanish Accounts?

Veronica Pace working on Anton Urn
Veronica Pace excavating an urn burial from Anton, Panama (Photo: Nicole Smith-Guzmán)

Many archaeologists have relied on contact-period Spanish accounts of indigenous groups on the Isthmus to inform ideas about cultural activities, particularly burial rites among these groups. However, the observations and interactions between the Spanish and the indigenous Isthmian groups they encountered were far from unbiased. Our analysis of human remains in conjunction with archaeological evidence of their mortuary contexts allows us to “fact-check” these chronicles, permitting the correction of potential misrepresentations of pre-Columbian lifeways. Our research has shown that in many cases, the violent and barbaric portrayals of indigenous Isthmians in Spanish accounts are not reflected in the archaeological record, and thus, cannot be taken at face-value in application to understandings of past human lifeways.

How Mobile were the Ancient Human Inhabitants of the Isthmus?

From the expanse and reduction of certain painted ceramics styles across time and space, we know about the timing of cultural changes taking place in ancient Isthmian communities. What remains uncertain is whether these changes marked an influx of new groups of people to the region, or alternatively, increased long-distance cultural influence through trade route expansion. We are pursuing this question by looking for macroscopic signs of new biological phenotypes in human remains (i.e., biodistance analysis using human dental metric and non-metric traits), and microscopic, biochemical evidence of foreign peoples (i.e., strontium and oxygen isotopes in bones and teeth, and ancient DNA).

What Cultural Activities and Diseases are Visible on the Bones of Pre-Columbian Peoples?

Mallory Cox Malaria Study
Mallory Cox preparing bones for malaria study (Photo: Nicole Smith-Guzmán)

Like many cultures worldwide, ancient Panamanian communities interacted with their dead relatives over a prolonged period of time. Rather than a behavior of extradition and exclusion, the ancient populations inhabiting the Isthmus of Panama took special care of the sick who died before their prime, often leaving more sumptuary ornaments in the graves of infants and children than in those of adults. We are interested in refining our understandings of the types of activities practiced by, and diseases that afflicted, individuals and populations on the Isthmus. Of current interest is the possibility of increased genetic or “rare” diseases among Isthmian populations before Spanish contact.